Another thinker moment from the BBC

An essay on this morning's broadcast of BBC's "From Our Own Correspondent" described two back to back political protests in Egypt. The first was led by moderate academics from Cairo University who called for more political freedoms and less corruption. It attracted about 50 protestors and about five times as many riot police. The second protest was composed of university students from the Moslem Brotherhood, an quasi-banned Islamic fundamentalist group that made gains in recent parlimentary elections. This rally drew 300 students to the square in front of Cairo University, who shouted similar reform slogans , but also held up copies of the Koran. Non-commital students watching from outside the ring of riot police criticized the first protest, stating that the academics were going too far, and also neglecting the importance of Islamic values.
That highly-organized, tightly-bonded hardline Islamic parties are winning elections and gaining supporters across a gradually awakening Middle East should not be a surprise. After all, the U.S. civil rights movement was led by African-American churches, and the ANC struggled for decades as a highly centralized and idealogical guerrilla organization before the collapse of South Africa's apartheid regime. The least corrupt, and most passionately organized groups will be the best at attracting followers who suddently find themselves free to hold political opinions. And in the Middle East, those parties are almost always religious. Policy planners who wished for agnostic political revolutions and election results in the Middle East similar to the hued models of Ukraine and Georgia forgot the vast differences between Kiev and Cairo.
But in a wink to real-politik, those Cairo protestors who adopted a religous mantle to their slogans also must realize that governments who require the backing of Muslim authorities to rule are much less likely to club and imprison moderate protestors holding up copies of the Koran than those holding up law books.



Requiem for a device

The nearest thing to my pride and joy died last week: my Cowon iAudio U2 digital music player. It's demise was unexpected, and rather... shocking. You see, it was static electricity that did it in. I was listening to my Slate.com podcast while biking to work, with the iAudio u2 stashed safely in my coat pocket. Arriving at my office, I took of my coat and ZAP - the invisible voices were silenced forever. A rogue bolt of blue lightning turned my podcast carrier/voice recorder/airplane savior/sleek black beauty into a 0.8 oz. plastic paper weight. It was the battery, I think. It's lithium core jolted into blue jello by a few extra volts flowing the wrong direction. Damn this low-humidity, high-mountain air. No amount of firmware updating, reset-button pushing, or tech support harassing could bring it back. It was dead as Windows 98. I was pissed because not only did this device entertain me, but it was an invaluable work tool as well. I used it to record dozens of phone calls and interviews for Outside, and also to capture my family's old-time stories and histories at a December 2005 reunion. I used it often and therefore I miss not having it.
So last night I went on Amazon.com and bought a new digital music player. This new device runs on AA batteries. I hope it's more grounded.


The Cartoon Riots

How can crudely drawn cartoons spark riots and demonstrations from London to Jakarta? It's easy, actually. After all, the Indian Rebellion of 1857, which lasted for two years and killed thousands, is traced, at least in historical mythology, to ordinary bullet cartridges.
Once the Indian soldiers, known as Sepoys, discovered that the cartridges for their Lee-Enfield .303 rifles were coated in pig and beef grease--their British colonial masters were in deep trouble. The soldiers, after all, had to bite through the tops of the cartridges before loading them into their rifles. And for devout Muslims and Hindus, respectively, the fat of pigs and cattle is not something they should be chewing on. Not that the Lee-Enfield company really cared, though.
But ignorance, more than cartoons and bullets, is the real factor at play in the current outbursts and reactions over depictions of Mohammed. It's ignorance about how people live and what they believe. Freedom of press is as foreign to Iranian students as the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed are to a stockbroker in Chicago. And this ignorance allows radical leaders, especially in the cities where the riots have taken place, to exploit the mindless energy of the masses to consolidate their power, and improve their credentials. These leaders thrive in places where the young men lack both economic opportunity and a global comprehension--a description that can be applied to many big cities across the Middle East.
How big is the barrier between the West and the Islamic world? Won't globalization and the promise of democracy break down even that high wall? Today's cartoons show that these two worlds, increasingly intermingled, still know as much about each other as they did in the 19th century.
One ironic counter-example that reporters on the ground in Iran and Pakistan like to point out is that teenage protesters shout "Death to America" on the street, and then approach western journalists with whispered pleas to help them get a US visa. What does this show: Perhaps that many of the world's marginalized societies are hedging their bets--playing both radicalism and westernism to see which one will win. Plenty of Americans can relate--after all, even if we badmouth our boss to co-workers, we'll still kiss up to get a raise.


Six more weeks of mild... spring?

Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania is a long way from New Mexico, and so I don't fault Phil for today's forecast of a prolonged winter. Since we haven't had winter yet in Santa Fe, I imagine that we are in store for six more weeks of 55F days and cloudless blue skies.
But more seriously, the lack of snow (or of any precipitation) has increased fears that the national forests will be closed this spring and summer due to fire dangers. Two summers ago rangers blocked the road to ski basin--cutting off all access. So I am planning, with some co-workers, to do more hiking and camping in February and March--before the fire restrictions arrive. The nights might be a little chillier this early on--but the views will still be worth it.